Whether you think vanilla ice cream – or even just the flavor itself – is a veritable delight or worthy of its association with blandness, it’s clear that it’s extremely popular. It remains a near-ubiquitous choice of ice cream or gelato, which is why it may come as shocking news to you that, in the UK at least, it’s a bit of a lie.
Specifically, a survey by product and service reviewer Which? found that some brands of vanilla ice creams don’t contain cream, fresh milk or even, curiously, vanilla. This affects supermarket and branded ice creams only, so perhaps local or artisan producers are more honorable with their ingredients.
Per the Guardian, only half of the 24 surveyed brands contained all three of those key ingredients. Those lacking all three were brands developed by and sold in Tesco, Morrisons and ASDA stores. Soft-scoop vanilla ice cream from Ms Molly’s and Wall’s, sold at Tesco, also lacked the trifecta of seemingly essential deliciousness.
The brands lacking vanilla were replaced with various general flavorings, while whey protein and partially reconstituted and dried skimmed milk stood in for milk and cream. Various oils were also sometimes used as substitutes, including palm oil – the harvesting of which is infamously devastating to wildlife and biodiversity.
There is currently no standardized ingredient list for what can be referred to as "ice cream" in the UK. There were some key requirements until 2015, a minimum of 5 percent fat and not less than 2.5 percent milk protein for example, but new legislation designed to permit more products – vegan, low-fat, etcetera – onto the market nixed those.
There are, thankfully, plenty of brands that do contain what you’d expect. Haagen-Danz, Ben & Jerry’s and Green & Black’s, for example. At the same time, if you’re a vegan or perhaps lactose intolerant, then non-dairy ice cream is something you’d want to buy anyway, although your views may vary on the missing vanilla situation.
This data also extends to the UK only. It’s unclear what the situation is like in the US – where vanilla ice cream remains the most popular flavor – but given that there’s imitation American cheese sold over there, which is a lesser version of regular American “cheese” slices anyway, I wouldn’t hold out much hope.
Your concern over this issue likely depends on whether you think the taste of your vanilla ice cream hangs entirely on the presence of vanilla or not. Don’t expect anything to change, though: vanilla is an increasingly expensive crop to harvest, so switcharoos will often be favored to save on production costs.
First cultivated by the Totonacs on Mexico’s east coast in the 15th century, it was then forcefully acquired by the Aztecs. Until the early 17th century, according to National Geographic, vanilla was little more than a chocolate additive, but it became popular when Queen Elizabeth I was given vanilla flavored sweetmeats by her inventive apothecary.
Recipes proliferated, and one for ice cream appeared in the US in the early 1800s. Demand has only risen ever since, but the way that the orchid grows – mainly in Madagascar and Reunion these days – requires a lengthy maturation process before it can be harvested.
Without bees there, it has to be hand-pollinated during a very limited time frame. Then, it takes most of the year to be tended too, after which it's collected and dried.
Demand consistently and hugely outpaces supply which, when combined with its intensive farming requirements, makes it the second-priciest spice in the world, behind saffron. So forget ice cream being a deception: 99 percent of vanilla-flavored products on the market contain literally none of it. The substitution trend is only set to continue, hammering local farmers as it does so.